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Wends in Texas by Helmuth Esau and Sylvia Grider

Wednesday 01 April 2015 at 01:45 am.

This paper was first presented by Helmuth Esau (deceased) and Sylvia Grider (Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University) as follows:

Helmut Esau and Sylvia Grider, "The Wends: A Case Study of Ethnic Variables" in Wolfgang Wölck and Paul L. Garvin (eds.) The Fifth LACUS Forum1978 [Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States], (Columbia, S.C. : Hornbeam Press, 1979), 383-96.

Introduction: "Who are the Wends?" is the title of a small pamphlet written by Ron Lammert for the Texas Wendish Culture Club a few years ago. It is only one of a number of signs indicating a reawakening of ethnic consciousness among the so-called Wends of Texas. "Who are the Wends?" is also the question asked by linguists, anthropologists, and folklorists when someone mentions that group. The language of the Texas Wends - now almost dead - has received comparatively little attention; their kinship system and cultural traditions have never been among the favorites of American anthropologists; and the folklorist knows next to nothing about the folklore and customs of the Wends. There is no Wounded Knee in the history of the Texas Wends that could have brought them to the consciousness of the American people. In short, for most Americans scholars and non-scholars alike the Wends are forgotten people. Their history is the history of ordinary men and women that seems little different from that of other ordinary Texans.

And yet, those who have studied the Texas Wends agree that they constitute a distinct ethnic group with a surprisingly strong tradition. Even after more than three generations, there are few indications that the Wends are being absorbed by the mainstream of American culture. This is not to say that the Wends have refused to be assimilated into the American way of life; nevertheless, there is a strong sense of group identity and, surprisingly enough, a rather well defined social stratification within the group based on what might be called degrees of "Wendishness."

In this paper we wish to discuss briefly some of the manifestations of Wendishness, which we will call ethnic denominators. We begin with a short historical sketch. Next, we isolate the major variables, or ethnic denominators, which are invoked whenever someone says, "I am a Wend." Finally, we discuss in greater detail one specific ethnic denominator, viz. Wendish names. For in some sense, the names are an embodiment of what is meant by "Wendish." They have taken on near iconic proportions, so that their physical presence provides an almost sure guide for recognizing the boundaries of the Wendish community.

1. Historical sketch: The core colony of around 500 Wends arrived in December 1854 in Galveston, Texas under the leadership or their pastor, the Rev. Johann Kilian. Their European homeland was a loosely defined territory in South-Eastern Germany west of Poland and north of the Czech Republic, known as Lusatia (German Lausitz). Actually, the Lusatia of the 19th century consisted of two separate administrative units: a Southern part, known as Upper Lusatia and a Northern part, known as Lower Lusatia. Map 1, adopted from Nielsen (l977:8), illustrates the geographic extent of Lusatia, where Germans and Wends had been living side by side for centuries The motives behind the Wendish emigration are relatively clear; they include the desire for religious freedom, the promise of better economic conditions, and the will to preserve and use the Wendish language whenever they desired. However, scholars do not agree as to the relative importance of the three factors. For instance, Engerrand (1934) declares dogmatically: "The origin of the emigration of a large group of Wends to Texas in 1854 is to be found in a desire for religious freedom; social and political upheavals of the preceding years had very little to do with it." (p.89). Nielsen (1977), on the other hand, insists that "religious motivation gives us insight into the Wends' way of life, but it does not provide us with the simple answer for migration...Possibly the economic and religious motives blended..."(pp. 63-64). Yet all scholars agree that the church was then and still is a powerful force in the life of the Texas Wends. Without the church's stabilizing influence, the Wendish community would hardly have preserved its ethnic identity until today

The original settlement of the Wends was established at Serbin, Texas, which is even today the heart of Wendish country. Immediately after they arrived in Serbin, the Wends began to build a new church, St. Paul Lutheran Church which has the undisputed status of being the parent church for all the Texas Wends. It stands today as a symbol of Wendish Lutheranism with its claim of being the first Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Texas according to the Rev. Arthur Graf, who retired in 1977, "the congregation is not losing members, it's as large as it was 20 years ago. They really attend church well."(The Eagle)

From Serbin, the Wends began to disperse throughout what is today Lee County, Fayette County, and Williamson County and later into more remote parts of Texas. Map 2, adopted from Nielsen (1977:75) shows the pattern of Wendish colonization.

As indicated earlier, there has been a noticeable reawakening of Wendish consciousness in recent years. In 1971, the Texas Wendish Culture Club was formed which has been renamed the Texas Wendish Heritage Society and has approximately 150 members. The Society participates actively in various folk activities, such as the Texas Folklife Festival; it has compiled a Wendish cookbook which is now in its third printing; it has constructed a replica of the Ben Nevis, the ship on which the original Wends came to Texas, and enters it in different parades in the area. During the last few years, the Society has also moved closer to its goal of building a Wendish Museum. One of the members of the Society even wrote a brief informative pamphlet about the Wands.

2. Ethnic denominators: When we began to study the Texas Wends three years ago, we were quite optimistic about finding a rich folk tradition. After all, the Wends have constituted an extremely homogeneous group ever since they settled in Texas. Yet we discovered very soon that the Wends had preserved very little of folklore in the conventional sense, such as folktales and legends. In this respect, we must agree with Nielsen's (1974) observations in his article, "Folklore of the Wends." But we disagree completely with the explanation he gives for that fact. Nielsen states there:

"Under these conditions it is not difficult to see why the Wends kept little European folklore. Much of their folklore had been associated with trees, animals, and land; so when they saw mesquite, scrub oak, and oleanders instead of birches, chestnuts, and alders; and coyotes, skunks, possums, armadillos, scorpions, and tarantulas instead of the few wolves, rodents, and deer of Europe, the stories must have lost their meaning. And how could one possibly imagine that spirits and fairies would exist in the same woods with the wild Indians? Any costumes that were brought over were soon ruined by living under primitive conditions, and if there was money, it would be spent for land and not on new clothes."(Nielsen, 1974:296)

We see no reason why spirits and fairies could not coexist in the same woods with the wild Indians, if not separately then, at least, in some synthesized form. Rather, the conventional folklore genres were not preserved because the harshness of frontier life is not a favorable environment for their preservation and adaptation. Folklorists have found that folktales and legends are maintained in stable politico-economic environments, but not under the pressures of life on the frontier. Among immigrant groups the lore of the Old Country is diluted in direct proportion to the loss of the native language and radical change of social conditions. Accounts of hardship and deprivation often replace the traditional tales of the homeland, which are closely tied to leisure and stability.

Yet the more we studied the traditions of the Wends, the more we realized that there was something wrong with our approach. Our problem was in some sense comparable to that experienced by the early American linguists and philologists, who realized that their traditional language categories did not work very well for descriptions of Amerind languages. Their dilemma resulted eventually in the well-known structuralism premise that every language has its own unique grammatical structure, which the linguist must somehow discover. With this view came a shift from a predominantly diachronic to a more synchronistic orientation of language description.

In the same way, we realized that the conventional folklore categories did not work well for the contemporary Wendish community. If we wanted to identify what it meant to be "Wendish," we would have to abandon the largely diachronic approach taken by all the major studies of the Texas Wends and analyze the Wendish ethnic traditions synchronically. It may, of course, be true that a Wend is someone who can trace his lineage back to the Slavic people of Lusatia and who has preserved certain characteristic folklore and traditions from the European homeland. This is essentially what all four major studies of the Texas Wends assume. But to understand what this current generation of Wends understands by the term "Wendish," we must identify those synchronic factors that contribute to the group's ethnicity; and that is first of all an empirical question.

Our study of the ethnic denominators, as we call them, is well under way. We have isolated the following seven variables that seem to establish different degrees of "Wendishness" and that together defines the ethnic label "Wend":

(i) the language(s) used ;

(ii) names;

(iii) religion;

(iv) genealogical proximity to the Ben Nevis;

(v) existing artifacts and customs;

(vi) present geographical distribution;

(vii) family and community ties.

In order to find out how these seven ethnic denominators interact to produce the social stratification we have observed in the Wendish community, we have prepared two questionnaires that we are sending to approximately 400 Wends. In the first questionnaire we gather information relating to the seven categories for each respondent. Later, the same respondent will receive a second questionnaire, in which they are asked to rate different items relating to the seven ethnic denominators on a scale from one through seven. The results of the questionnaires will hopefully enable us to say what this generation of Wends understands by the term "Wendish." To clarify our concept of "ethnic denominator" a little better, we will now turn to one specific denominator and show what information we can derive from it.

3. The ethnic denominator of Wendish names: Our interest in the Wendish names began during the summer of 1977 as the result of a practical problem. During that period, Dr. Grider lived for five weeks with a Wendish couple in the small community of Warda, in Fayette County, Texas. Among other things, we wanted to determine for ourselves where the geographic boundaries of this historically Wendish region were. At a superficial level, this meant that we needed to know and identify the cultural signals by which we, as outsiders, could recognize a predominantly Wendish area. During the preceding summers we set out to collect and study some samples of the Wendish language and examples of traditional folklore genres and, customs that were demonstrably Wendish in origin. However, neither the language nor the folklore data provided an adequate indicator for determining the extent and degree of cultural retention among the Wends. The Wendish language is no longer functional but ii is at best a vestige preserved in the memory of a few. If it has any value at all, it is not through its functional use in communication, but because of the attitudes toward it and toward those who can still speak it by the members of the community at large. A distinctly Wendish folklore in the conventional sense of folktales, songs, dances, and calendar customs is similarly non-existent as was noted earlier.

But one feature appearing to delineate the Wendish presence among the surrounding Czechs and Germans better than any other: the physical existence of Wendish names. There are first of all the place names of the key settlement communities. Secondly, the surnames of the people embellishing various landscape artifacts and public documents also constitute a common denominator for recognizing the presence of a concentration of Wends in any given locale. In short, the mere existence of Wendish names in a given area is perhaps the most obvious predictor of the extent and decrees of Wendish ethnicity.

Let us now examine a few specific examples of Wendish names. Among the place names that the early Wends gave to their settlements, there are three and possibly four within a twelve-mile radius of Giddings, Texas, that are distinctively Wendish: Serbin, Warda, Loebau, and Nechanitz.

Serbin is the original Wendish Settlement established in Lee County in 1855. The word was apparently coined by Johann Kilian the pastor of the little colony and basically means "the Sorbian place." It is interesting to note here that the Sorb/Serb root was used in a place name but not in reference to the language or the people themselves. (We intend to elaborate on this point in a later paper.) As befits its status as the capitol or center or this new "nation" of the Wends, the place name Serbin is unique to Texas. It has no counterpart in Upper Lusatia, as do the other Texas Wendish place names, which were all borrowed from the homeland. Serbin has a current population of about ninety and consists only of a church, a small general store and scattered farmhouses. The present St. Paul's, regarded as the Mother Church of Lutheranism in Texas, was completed in 1872. Originally services were conducted in German and Wendish, but the Wendish was gradually dropped. The last Wendish service was held in 1929 to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the arrival of the Ben Nevis in Galveston. Today, services are conducted in German and English on alternating Sundays.

The village disintegrated when the railroad passed it by in 1871 in favor of Giddings now the county seat and largest town in Lee County. Serbin and its church are recognized by all Texas Wends as the spiritual homeplace of their ethnic group, and attendance at the annual summer picnic or homecoming sometimes numbers into the thousands.

Warda, about six miles southeast of Serbin, just across the Fayette County line, was the second major Wendish settlement in Texas. It was established in 1873 by Wends who split off from the parent congregation at Serbin and founded their own church, Holy Cross. Because they could not locate a pastor who could speak

Wendish, services had to be conducted in German. Today there is a German service once a month, and English is the dominant language of the church and the community. Now located on Highway 77, Warda has a population of about seventy and like Serbin consists only of a church, a general store, and some houses. The village was named after Wartha, a town north of Bautzen in Upper Lusatia, from which some of the Texas settlers originally migrated.

Loebau, a tiny settlement of about twenty people, has only the Christ Lutheran Church and a few houses today but at the turn of the century was a bustling and prosperous community. Like Warda, it was named after an Upper Lusatian town, Loebau. The Texas Loebau was settled not long after Warda by Wends and others who were seeking more fertile farmland. Loebau is located a few miles northeast or Giddings.

The fourth place name claimed by some Wends is Nechanitz, basically only a general store and cluster of houses southeast of Warda. The etymology of this name is disputed and the history of the founding of the community is equally obscure. One Wendish informant claimed without hesitation that the word is Wendish and means, "I don't want to" or "I don't want to do it" but other people in the vicinity ascribe Czech or German origins to the word. There is a Czech verb, nechet, meaning "to leave, dispense with, retain," from which the place name could have been derived, but the suffix, -itz is claimed by both Wends and Germans: the suffix is East Middle German of ultimately Slavic origin. [Nechanice, (German Nechanitz) is the name of a town in the Czech Republic.] Nechanitz marks the southeastern radial boundary of the region which has been traditionally regarded as Wendish. The Czechs dominate Fayette County to the south, and LaGrange is a primary Czech settlement, even though many Wends live there. Because of its pivotal geographic location and the confusion over the etymology among the Wends and the Czechs, Nechanitz is a significant boundary marker for ascertaining the limits of Wendish influence on this particular region of central Texas.

For the outsider, these Wendish place names are the initial point of reference for recognizing the historical presence of the Wends. Serbin, Warda, and Loebau have Wendish names because these communities were established and named by the early colonists. However, today the Wends themselves designate key communities within the nuclear region by a more synchronic system. They look not to the etymology of the place names but rather to their tacit knowledge of who lives where when identifying predominately Wendish communities. In addition to Serbin and Warda, other Wendish settlements clustered around Giddings are Winchester, Fedor, Manheim, Lexington, Lincoln, and Dime Box. These communities are claimed by the Wends regardless of the etymologies of their respective place names. The Wends even claim The Grove and Copperas Cove far to the north because large groups of Wends moved there in the early part of the twentieth century. Yet to an outsider these communities at first have no apparent connection with the Wends.

Wendish surnames provide the link which joins all of these communities (and even larger towns such as Giddings and LaGrange) into the geographic unit which can be loosely regarded as "Wendish country." By plotting on a map the physical evidence of Wendish surnames embellishing various landscape artifacts throughout the region, the researcher can determine more intricate spatial distribution of the Wends within the general region. Rural mailboxes, storefronts, tombstones, and public documents bearing Wendish surnames all help to define or denominate the Wendish presence on a more personal level.

Many Wends today take great pride in being able to trace their lineage back to the original colonists who came to Texas on the Ben Nevis. Although the Ben Nevis passenger list does not contain the complete roll of Wendish surnames, it is the logical source for beginning to compile a list of Wendish surnames in Texas. Obviously not all of these names have Sorbian etymology, and the spellings vary widely today. Therefore etymology or the rules cannot be used to designate who the Wends are. Surnames claimed by the Wends are especially complex to categorize because in Germany many names in the Wendish language were replaced by German equivalents for census and military rolls. The example of this name changing most often cited by informants in Warda and Serbin is Schmidt. In Europe the forbears of the Wends who bear this name today were Kovar or Kowar, which means "blacksmith." But the Germans changed some individual's names to the German equivalent of Schmidt. This dual Kovar/Schmidt nomenclature was maintained within one extended family which emigrated to the United States a few years after the Ben Nevis. Pastor Herman Schmidt, who preached the last Wendish sermon at Serbin in 1929, was the older brother of Hans Kowar, a popular local character who preferred

the Wendish version of the family name but would also answer to Johann Schmidt or John Smith. Within the same family there were some who officially anglicized the name and today call themselves Smith. Another example of this name changing is Lehmann, a shortened form of the German Lehenmann, meaning "money lender." The Wendish equivalent is Wićaz. However, today in Texas Kovar/Kowar is a relatively common surname among the Wends but there are no examples of Wićaz. Thus, as in many other instances where linguistic forms are concerned, the diachronic link with the European past through formal etymologies is rarely apparent. It has become a synchronic system known to every member of the Wendish community.

Wendish surnames, with or without recognizable Sorbian etymologies, predominate in many specific areas within the general Wendish region. The cemetery at Serbin, for example, contains an almost complete inventory of Wendish names on the tombstones. Furthermore, the Lutheran cemeteries at Winchester and Fedor are filled with markers bearing Wendish names. Such evidence enables the outsider to recognize that these communities are populated by Wends even though the place names are no more Wendish in a strict etymological sense than those of many other Texas towns. Furthermore, one way to trace the wider outward migration of the Wends is to check the names and dates on the tombstones in the Lutheran cemeteries throughout central Texas and beyond to such outlying communities as parts of Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.

Public documents also help the outsider recognize Wendish population concentrations. Wendish names in the telephone directories, especially of' the rural telephone exchanges, are invaluable for locating the Wends and dealing with kinship connections. Newspapers provide still another means for pinpointing the Wendish population. Giddings at one time had the only trilingual newspaper in Texas, the Deutsches Volksblatt. This paper, which ceased publication in 1938, regularly published articles in German, Wendish, and English. Today the Giddings Times and News and the Fayette County Record (LaGrange) are the local papers serving the Wendish area. Both carry special columns written by local correspondents about all the surrounding communities and Wendish names, of course, dominate the news from Serbin, Warda, Winchester, etc. The Lutheran Church has been the consistent unifying force among the Wends and the various weekly church bulletins, newsletters, and related publicity are thus still another means for noting where Wendish names - and hence Wendish people - predominate. Together the various physical manifestations of the surnames reinforce the Wendish presence radiating outward from Serbin and Warda.

4. Conclusion: The occasional preservation of Sorbian linguistic forms in place names and surnames reflects the existence of a diachronically defined ethnicity among the Wends. All four major studies on the Texas Wends have emphasized this diachronic basis. But Wendish is also (if not primarily) a synchronically sustained ethnicity which manifests itself in more subtle modes - our ethnic denominators - that may or may not be tied to historical roots. This duality, we believe, explains an apparent paradox: the Wends have had no difficulties assimilating with neighboring groups which enhanced their outward and upward mobility. Yet at the same time, the group as a whole maintains its ethnic integrity in a surprisingly stable and cohesive way. Among the Wends today one finds physicians, lawyers, college professors, and successful urban businessmen co-existing with full blooded Wendish farmers and their wives who have tilled the same family lands for over a century.

Helmut Esau and Sylvia Grider

Department of English

Texas A&M University

College Station, Texas 77643

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